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Justices Decline School Board's Appeal in Bias Case

The U.S. Supreme Court today refused the hear the appeal of an Alabama school district in a case in which an employee successfully sued over claims that she was placed too low on the salary schedule.

Returning from their four-week, mid-winter recess, the justices declined without comment to hear the appeal of the Birmingham district in the case involving Cathy McCord-Baugh, a central-office administrator who claimed she did not receive the salary she was due as a "community school coordinator" but instead was classified at a lower rung on the salary schedule.

McCord-Baugh sued under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment based on the "class of one" theory, meaning that the government treats an individual worse than others in similar circumstances. She won a $44,000 jury verdict in a state trial court.

The Birmingham district appealed, and while the case was pending before the Alabama Supreme Court in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture, which held that "class of one" equal-protection claims may not be brought by public employees.

The Alabama high court decided that it was procedurally barred from considering the school district's arguments that the class-of-one claims by public employees were barred because the district had not raised that issue earlier in the case.

In its appeal in Birmingham Board of Education v. McCord-Baugh, the district urged the justices to summarily reverse the Alabama Supreme Court on the theory that it was clear the Alabama court should have applied Engquist to the administrator's case.

Lawyers for McCord-Baugh argued in a brief that Engquist may not have truly barred all class-of-one claims in public employment and that the U.S. Supreme Court should let the permutations of that ruling percolate in the lower courts.

Separately today, the justices refused to hear the appeal of a Louisiana school district in a long-running dispute with one of its service contractors.

The Beauregard Parish school system sued Honeywell International Inc., claiming that the company promised changes to lighting, air conditioning, and automated-control systems that would save the district some $91,000 per year over a 10-year contract. The district claims in court papers that energy use actually increased in the first year after the contractor installed equipment and that the promised savings were never fully realized.

A federal district court ruled that the school district could not bring a claim under Louisiana's unfair trade practices law, and later ruled summarily for Honeywell on other claims as well. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, upheld the district court. Court documents suggest that Honeywell blamed some of its subcontractors for the initial increase in energy use and contended that it met the terms of its contract. Honeywell didn't file a brief responding to the school district's Supreme Court appeal.

The justices declined without comment to hear the district's appeal in School Board of Beauregard Parish v. Honeywell International Inc. (No. 09-637).

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